Basement – Johnny’s in it
Basement singer-guitarist John Mullin has never set foot on North American soil, but the Liverpool-based Irishman definitely has notions about life on this side of the pond.
“It’s still the land of Charlie Parker and Hunter S. Thompson to me,” he says, his soft lilt a tipoff that England may currently be home base but the Emerald Isle will always be home. “I’m fascinated by Old America, and I think that it still exists, even if people like Donald Rumsfeld have made us think that it doesn’t.
“I like that the greatest of American heroes are subversives who always survived, even under the shittiest of circumstances, and that they typically have no pretensions. Lead Belly, and even Hemingway or Bukowski, all had something in common that I admire: They didn’t waste people’s time with bullshit.”
Mullin might not have much tolerance for bullshit, but based on how long it took to record and release the Basement’s scruffed-up debut disc, Illicit Drugs And Playground Thugs, he knows something about wasting time. In 2003, Mullin, guitarist-keyboardist Mark McCausland, drummer Declan McManus (not to be confused with, oh, you-know-who), and bassist Graeme Hassall were one of the most hyped live acts in Liverpool. Instead of striking while the iron was hot, the group took three years to cough up a full-length, an eternity in a hyper-accelerated world where today’s Fall Out Boy is yesterday’s the Hives. While the members of the Basement toiled away in the studio, they watched groups that once opened for them — the Thrills, for example — become major-label buzz acts in the U.K.
“We actually made three albums in those three years, but we only released the last one,” Mullin reveals. “In hindsight, that was a bit precious — we should have just put them all out. We spent a lot of time trying to make sure that everything sounded just right, but you live and learn, I guess.”
Illicit Drugs And Playground Thugs, which gets its Stateside release May 8 on Zealous Records, is flooded with desert-shimmer keyboards and Bakersfield-brand guitars. Despite its long gestation, the album sounds anything but labored over. And given Mullin’s love of iconic Americans, it’s no shocker that the songs seem more like exports from the U.S. than products of the gloomy old U.K.
What’s ultimately impressive is the way the Basement seems like it would be just as happy shooting Jim Beam with the Long Ryders as it would scoring with the Velvet Underground. Their obsession with the band that made Lou Reed an icon is most evident in the circa-’67 jangle of “When Tomorrow Comes”, which plays out like a lost track from the now-iconic The Velvet Underground & Nico.
“Everyone loves the first Velvet Underground record, and rightly so, but it’s the third one, with ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ on it, that’s just incredible,” Mullin argues. “I love all heavy rock bands when they strip it right back and they still sound equally as amazing.”
While the Basement has no trouble copping to its Velvets addiction, Mullin downplays the suggestion that an intentional streak of Americana runs through the bulk of the album’s tracks. As much as the banjo on “Summertimes” smells like Grade-A Kentucky bluegrass and “A Roadtrip” brings to mind Sixteen Horsepower after a month in the Badlands, Mullin claims that’s more by accident than design.
Which doesn’t make him any less excited about the genius of Lead Belly or lessen his admiration of the land of Charlie Parker.
“I see a lot of old music being sort of the same — it just got separated by an ocean,” Mullin explains. “I don’t know where you draw the line between the old slave songs and cowboy songs of America with old Irish songs. If you’re from either America or Ireland, that sort of stuff is part of your DNA.”